The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Reviewed by Lory Widmer Hess

In our upside-down world of reversed values, where what is most lasting and important is given the least amount of attention, while superficial, transitory things are praised and showered with material success, books containing deep spiritual wisdom are often published for children. This is as if to say that such wisdom is something we will outgrow, that once we have advanced to a state of maturity we can forget the props of our younger, weaker selves.

But if we make it through the desert of midlife and begin to question what is actually true and fundamentally real, we might come back to these stories. We may realize that it is the child in us who remains truly alive, the green “wick” hidden within the withered, brown branch. In recovering what this child knew without being taught may lie our true education. The books of our childhood reappear as guides to the land we are now looking toward, the land beyond mortal existence, as we once looked to them to remind us of the mystery out of which we were born.

Such a book, for me, is The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin, the second in her Earthsea series, now published in a new illustrated edition by the Folio Society. The series began with A Wizard of Earthsea, which LeGuin wrote as a one-off when she was asked for a book for teenagers, and which was subsequently published by a children’s imprint. She really didn’t mean to write more Earthsea books at the time, she insists. But she couldn’t help putting in seeds of further stories that would eventually lead her back to the world of many islands in a wide sea, full of magic and wizards and dragons, along with goatherds and fishermen and women tending children, that continued to occupy her nearly till the end of her long and productive writing life.

The Folio series began before she died in 2018, and so she was able to see and give her approval to David Lupton’s illustrations for the first book. Now, after an agonizingly long period of uncertainty, we can be glad that the series will continue in a beautiful and durable edition, most suitable to the lasting quality of its contents, and sized and typeset for comfortable, aesthetically pleasurable reading. Sometimes our world does manage to get its values right, after all.

I’ve read Tombs many times since my first reading at around age nine, but each time it reveals new facets and layers to me, as all the greatest works of literature do. This time, I noticed how powerfully it pictures the experience of depression, through the character of Arha, a young priestess taken from her family and given in early childhood to a desert temple serving the dark powers of the earth. Arha is not a name but a title, meaning “the eaten one.” Anyone who has gone through depression knows the feeling of being eaten up, hollowed out, given over to forces that overpower the light within. And Arha’s domains, the lightless cave below the ground and the labyrinth where useless treasure is buried and chained prisoners starve to death, are images of the inner realm where one wanders when hope seems utterly lost, in the chill numbness that takes over when the natural warmth of our humanity is disrupted by trauma.

Arha rules here, taking pride in her knowledge of the underworld and in her service of her nameless Masters, but she comes to understand that she is a ruler of dust and shadows, that her obedience to the forces of nothingness has created nothing worthy of such service, but has only caught her in a trap of death. And she finds her release in the only way depression can be lifted: through forging new human relationships, daring to open up in trust, finding the capacity to love that has not been killed in her, only frozen and shut down by long deprivation.

Ged, the “wizard of Earthsea” from the first book, is the one who meets her in the dark place and helps her to manifest her inner light. She should kill him as a thief and a defiler, yet she does not. He meets her not as an opponent, but with respect and humility, as one who knows well what it means to fight with dark powers that threaten one from within. Through their encounters she awakens to wonder, to conscience, to interest in the other human being — all the guides which spiritually lead us toward our higher selves.

LeGuin notes in her afterword that some have protested that Ged’s “saving” of Arha — or rather Tenar, the true name he restores to her — is anti-feminist, a repetition of the false trope that women need men to rescue them. She replies that Ged and Tenar save each other, that they are complementary equals, both necessary and vital to the process of engendering wholeness. And I think this is another spiritual truth that the story encapsulates most effectively, portraying the masculine and feminine sides of ourselves, which die in isolation, but generate new life and hope when they are joined in bonds of mutual respect.

A poet as well as a novelist, LeGuin is able to convey much with a great economy of words, and to do so in a way that awakens our minds to new ways of seeing. As a child I simply took this in without judging or evaluating it, but now I can appreciate the beauty of her prose, which is always a joy to read. Her descriptions bring vivid pictures to life, while the rhythm and pace of her sentences make them flow like music. She’s not a showy and obtrusive stylist, but one who keeps her writing at the service of her story and characters, occasionally coming out with a gem-like phrase that sticks in the mind.

Images “““““““““““foliosociety.com ©2022 illus. David Lupton

With their dull tones and subtle shadings, Lupton’s full-page colored illustrations bring out the somber atmosphere of the story and the power of its images, picking out scenes under the ground and in the temple of the Nameless Ones, nightmarish with entrapment. Only the frontispiece points toward a different atmosphere, showing Arha embraced by the eunuch Manan, whose care for her helps to keep love alive in the dark place. I wish that Lupton had chosen a few more scenes of beauty and light to include, of which there are many in the text: Ged’s wand lighting up the Undertomb, Tenar running home across the fields to her mother before she is taken to the Tombs, or Tenar and Ged coming into the port of Havnor, triumphant with the treasure they have restored together. All would have been wonderful to see, but the artist made other choices.

From this visual presentation one could be fooled into thinking that The Tombs of Atuan is a grim and hopeless tale, and the first chapters may indeed be hard to bear for readers easily triggered by such content, but it is not a tragedy. It is a story about freedom, yet one that acknowledges the weight and the price of freedom. Perhaps only a person who has known the oppressive force of darkness and un-life can freely choose the burden of serving the light. This gives back meaning and purpose to life for those of us who have suffered with depression or other shadowings of the mind; yet the healing for such experiences takes a long time and much patience. LeGuin acknowledges this in her final pages, sensitively giving Tenar space to recover herself, rather than pushing her on to further adventures at once — and this too is a truth of the spirit, one generally overlooked in our hasty and impatient times.

The story goes on in further volumes, in which LeGuin continues to share her word-magic and her wisdom, evolving over the years into something truly remarkable. As we look forward to further entries in the Folio series, we can celebrate a great work of art that has much to teach readers of any age today. If it does not already have a place in your heart and on your bookshelves, I hope that you will consider looking into its treasures. You may find great and unexpected rewards there, as Ged and Tenar do.

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Lory Widmer Hess is an American reader and writer currently living in Switzerland. She blogs about life, language, and literature at enterenchanted.com.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Tombs of Atuan, illustrated by David Lupton. (The Folio Society, 2022). 166pp., hardback.

Visit the Folio Society edition here.

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1 comment

  1. A beautifully and sensitively expressed review, Lory, one which evokes all the deep heartache, wonderment and release that this novel explores and which persuades me that it mustn’t be too long before I return to this series and especially this instalment for the umpteenth time.

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